Revelling in Representation
I have never seen Marina Abramovic perform but I have been influenced by her work without knowing it.
Of course, I’m aware of The Artist is Present, performed in 2010 at MoMA. I saw the youtube clips of Ulay sitting across from her and both of them weeping, reunited after years of not speaking. I was entranced the first time, goosebumps and wonderstruck by the intensity of this ‘reunion’. Everytime the clip circulated again, a friend sent it along. The performance and romance intertwined reminded my friends of me.
Now and then, I would stumble across an interview with Marina or an article and learn she was from Yugoslavia, or that she had been sued by Ulay for profits from the work they did when they were together. I was casually interested in her use of endurance in her performances as I also use endurance in my performances and films. Recently, I discovered that she has an institute where she teaches the principles of her performance art to as general an audience as would be interested, and there I learned that lately she’s been more and more compelled to take herself out of her work and put the public in. I am still in the period of my work where it’s all about me, but in reading more about her method, I came to understand how putting yourself as the focus for a lifetime —in the sense of being your entire instrument— accumulates in its own way, becomes almost a substance. As your energy and/or interest in yourself fades with time, you can break off a chunk of wisdom here, a lobe of experience there, some of your own flesh, and feed it to whoever is ready to put the focus on themselves.
I would not have considered these passing ‘interactions’ an ‘influence’ on my life, but when a friend of mine on Facebook mentioned he was reading Abramovic’s memoir, I paused to read his post. He said, 'I think we can say that she is an example of sublimating pain into art.” I took it as an omen. I read her book. And that’s when I learned her secret influence on me.
I had heard that she walked the Great Wall of China as a final parting with Ulay, but I was riveted by the details of the experience.
They had the idea while in the Australian outback and carried it between them for eight years. She writes, "The notion had loomed so powerfully in our shared imaginings. We had thought —back then— that the Wall was still an intact, continuous structure that we would simply hike along; that each of us would walk alone; that we would camp out on the Wall each night. That after starting at opposite ends (the head in the east, the tail in the west) and meeting in the middle, we would marry. Our working title for the piece, for years, had been The Lovers.
Now we were no longer lovers. And, as always seems to be the fate of romantics, nothing was as we had imagined."
Then she writes to a critic who would be joining her on the walk that, "Before, there was this strong emotional link, so walking towards each other had this impact... [it was an] almost epic story of two lovers getting together after suffering. Then that fact went away. I was confronted with just bare Wall and me. I had to rearrange my motivation.
"I'm very glad we didn't cancel the piece, because we needed a certain form of ending. Really this huge distance we walk toward each other where actually we do not meet happily, but we will just end -- it's very human in a way. It's more dramatic than actually just having this romantic story of lovers. Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do."
As a performer myself, who has incorporated my romantic relationships into my work, I felt that rubber-band-snap when something reflects your experience for the first time. There aren't that many of us who put our love into our work with our lovers playing along with us. Nothing I did was as extreme as Abramovic and Ulay's work. But only because pain isn't one of my core themes and because my lover was not himself a performance artist. He had a job in a bureaucracy and I was a creative outlet, not a creative partner.
But, still, I've done humiliating performance art, I've made audiences angry and uncomfortable on purpose, I've let my romanticism lead my creations and blurred the line between personal and professional and between myself as subject and object, I’ve gone to my own extremes —and I've accepted my fate— that nothing will be as I imagine.
Recently I was interviewed by a philosopher. He set up a camera in a hotel room in Toronto. I wore a tomato-red dress that I like the idea of more than I like how it feels to wear. I checked my face in my compact mirror when I arrived, looking for mask indents and lipstick smudges. My skin is older, it creases, I think the camera was already rolling as I did this. Which appeals to me; that I would check the aesthetics I was presenting to the camera as the camera was recording the state in which I had been when I rolled in.
I told the philosopher that I so rarely spoke about disability when I was younger that when I was in my 30s, and catching up with a friend from high school, and talking about how frustrating it was when people said things like 'I don't even see you as disabled,’ she said it reminded her of when people told her that she didn't look Jewish. Then she said, “I've never heard you talk about what being disabled is like." I had never talked about it before. I was just learning about ableism, not the experience of it, but the word itself, and the structured, shared, systemic quality of my personal experiences.
The philosopher wanted to know what I would want to tell younger versions of me, with the language I found in my later years. What I would have wanted to tell my friends earlier. I surprised myself with my answer.
My friends at the time knew me. What I cared about, what I dreamed of. They knew when I was in pain, they understood things were hard for me. By way of insight and observation. All of us were teenagers, none of us had language for the nature of our struggles, sexism? ableism? Family abuse? We couldn't track the patterns that were forming —they were too new. But they saw me. They didn't need a specific language, we didn't have to talk about being Jewish or being disabled, I crawled around their houses and we talked about boys and heartache and magic and listened to music we liked and we let each other yearn our fucking hearts out. The struggles that would compound, were not struggles my friends or I had power to solve. We couldn't rescue me from my home life, we couldn't make schools accessible. Knowing the words for it all, talking about it, I'm not entirely convinced that would have been better than what we did have to give each other. We loved each other, we were loyal, our friendships were not swayed by the way the world did or didn't see us.
I see a lot of fantasy examples of bands of highschool friends rallying together to fight injustice and hardship and winning. I love to watch these stalwart, coming-of-age epics as much as anyone, but the dramatic confrontations and shifting of fates that often hinge on access to social awareness and a wise grandparent are entertainment —escape— not effective templates. Partly because the writers who create those characters often give the teenagers the maturity they wish they’d had when they were that age. We watch what would happen if we were all more like our thirty-year-old-selves when we were in highschool. Even the actors that are cast are older than the character’s they play. As a writer, I have caught myself doing this. Projecting my adult self into my younger characters. It’s incredibly satisfying. But when I sift through my memories of myself then, I realize, it is not that we were unaware, it was that there was only so much we could do with what we knew.
In a weird way, not knowing more about disability in the collective sense gave space for me and my friends to get to know each other in our shared context, the only one we had to survive. I decided for myself what my experiences meant in a way that was kind of unprecedented. I would have to 'discover' disability later, but by that time, I was pretty full of myself. I was attaching what I learned about disability to what I already knew of myself, not the other way around. I wouldn't go back and undo that. I wouldn't go back and tell younger me that the Great Wall she is imagining as intact, is in fact crumbling and impassable.
The people who would have benefited from understanding the long-term impact of the obstacles I faced —the ones who did not know me personally, the ones who had the power to do something about the pain and struggles but were not interested, they would not have been swayed by the right words and weren't inclined to learn them from a child or teenager anyway. This includes my own family. If I was the only one with the language and knowledge, it would have felt like it was up to me to educate them with my life. What living might I have missed out on? Knowing then what I know now might have been an even greater weight than the one I already carried.
I was advocating for myself at a very young age. At eleven years old I wrote a letter to the board of education to explain that the way I was being treated at my school was inappropriate and making me very uncomfortable. I had enough words for that. It made no impact. I learned that I was freer the less I appeared to need help. Later, when I had enough maturity to support it, I would add nuance to that lesson. Advocating for my needs would become a source of confidence, like it flowered.
In the time since I was a teenager, It's not just me who learned about ableism —the world changed, too. My peers matured. The burden is more shared. It wouldn't have been back then. This is the false nature of “what would you do differently in the past” type questions. If I had known it all then, I might have felt even more alone.
As I was musing I realized that I was inadvertently expressing the opposite thing than I expected to express. How frequently do we hear that we want representation because we wish we had seen examples of ourselves more growing up. I recreated romantic movie scenes with my lover with me as the heroine, but in a wheelchair, because I told him I wished I had had that kind of ‘representation’ when I was a kid. And here I was saying that I wouldn't change not having that, because my relationship with my imagination (and its limits) is stronger for that lack. Those words I used to explain my vision to my lover were words I had learned in my thirties. As a kid, I didn’t want ‘representation’, I wanted wild and epic romance. As an adult, I still did.
Representation was a way I felt I could experience it. Which meant; in the realm of fantasy, but enacted with real bodies. Representation is a layer between me and what I desire. Do we want representation, or do we want what we want?
That's not to say that I don't believe it's positive for the collective to see examples of ourselves. I wouldn't argue we shouldn't have representation. But I do often think that representation is very different from self-expression. Are we fighting to be more represented by and to others, or for more space to self-express? I think the difference matters.
I explained to the philosopher that there is an assumption that everything I do is to prove something, inspire, or educate. That it is shocking news to non disabled people that I do things because I feel like it. I want to. It brings me pleasure. The end. And if what I express is intended as a form of representation then I am also contributing to the assumption that everything I do is to prove something, inspire, or educate.
The philosopher listened to my example of being at a club because I like to dance and being bombarded with people congratulating me and telling me how good it is for them to see me out. My presence in public, participating in activities, is rendered a piece of performance art. The public thinks I am performing —for their edification and inspiration. But I am watching their performance —for each other. An audience of one.
The philosopher pointed out that most people aren’t living lives based on what they desire, but why is it that they assume the disabled have no desire? I told him I didn't know. Only that the idea that I exist for them means that whenever they see me, they look for the way they benefit. If they don't find one, it is assumed I am —or will be— an inconvenience. That binary erases my desire —me— from the equation. I explained to him that I use that strange hinterland where disabled people are considered entirely void of desire as my performance space.
He told me that he recognized that my work was a provocation of the assumption of no desire. I told him that I'm simulating intimacy, connection, because it's what non disabled people rarely experience with disabled people.
The philosopher told me that he had spoken to others who had become disabled, who always seemed to mention —there was a specific phrase he heard often— that after their inciting incidents (accidents or illnesses) they felt ‘broken.’ Which seemed like an obvious reference to the altered body, but when he dug deeper he found they almost always meant they felt broken from being lovable. He wanted to know why it seemed I felt different. That I had not yet said this predictable thing.
The fact that no one has to tell the newly disabled that they are now unlovable (despite nothing else about them changing beside their body), and yet they almost universally feel that way, speaks to the sheer force of this perception of disability. When you are born disabled, it is there from the beginning. I explained that I did not break, I was simply born unlovable. I did not mean in the sense that I felt unlovable, I was not talking about insecurity or self esteem. I meant that in exactingly pragmatic terms, disability as unlovability was not a revelation to me, it was the set point for reality. Which I did not consent to live in. So I mostly didn't.
The romance of my life felt connected to having no other image of myself outside of myself; the canvas for my fantasies was blank. Living a dreamlife makes practical romantic relationships tricky. If I'm honest, I suspect I don't like them. They don't, as Marina points out, live up to what I imagine. And I find my dreams satisfying, compelling, beautiful, tender, grand and ridiculous. They also, inexplicably, have a tendency to come true. So I prefer to experience romantic relationships in my art, I overlap love and self-expression, I practice sex as a form of performance art, I sublimate.
In a conversation with my friend Lisa, she told me, “I remember sneaking off to the school library at lunch in high school to find books about ableism and wondering if there were other people like me “out there.” And the intensity of fantasy and the imagination. I spent so much time scolding myself for living in my head as a kid. And I think my parents saw it as a threat, too. Like, you, more than anyone, more than your peers need to be anchored in reality, cause the practicalities of life will be harder on you. I think I haven’t thought very much about what all that daydreaming gave me, just what it took from me ...?”
I responded, “I have spent so much energy fearing/hating/feeling humiliated by the fantasizing part of me. And the correlating energy to try and be realistic. Feeling like such a naive and unsophisticated failure when I just can't do it; be realistic, let go of the fantasy, if I find myself still living in a dream. Discovering myself as a writer really started to soften my disdain/fear for that part of me, and I've noticed how much it's really shifted as I reflect on my romantic life from my current perspective. Even with the humiliation factored in, I don't want to take that part out of my life and myself.”
Because so many of my out-of-touch dreams actually came true. Sometimes in astonishingly literal ways. And I never wasnt anchored in reality. I just had a different reality than people assumed. I think I’ve tended to be more realistic than most people I know. Often being considered negative, difficult, critical, and defensive as a result. My dreams don’t always have anything to do with my expectations for reality. I am realistic and I dream as a way of taking the edge off that reality. Sometimes the dream and reality blend. I learned to travel between both. To bring tokens from one realm into the other and back. We are so weirdly harsh on our coping mechanisms and our self soothing and I'm softening up to mine, I think.
I used to feel so tortured by the idea of not being loved - but that's not the same thing as wanting to be in a relationship. I wanted to not feel tortured. If actually, the absence of a relationship fuels my dreams of them and that gives me art, am I really being tortured? Or is there a kind of centrifugal force, almost, to my romantic life? As if the unlovable place is loved —by me.
When I lived in NYC, I was married to a man to whom I felt no desire. I put all my lust into my aerial performances, into casual sex, into the art I framed and put on my walls. There was an image in particular that I adored. I found it somewhere online, no idea who was in it or who had taken it. Black and white; a man who appears to be kneeling, wearing a suit, has his mouth delicately open around the nipple of a woman who is wearing dark robes, thickly satin, dramatically draped, starkly-white breast bare, face obscured. There was something about the elegance, the stillness, the sacredness, the man's suit, the worship, the specific exposure of one breast and everything else in shiny darkness that spoke to my unmet romantic desire. I printed it out. And framed it and hung it in my living room. Ironically, the at-home printing on regular A1 paper was an incredibly inelegant homage. I still have that exact printout, rolled up among other art I have no walls for and tucked under my bed.
I carried that fantasy for years of the man in the suit, though it's source would fade from memory. Years later, I would meet Mau, and I would go to Colombia, and he would wear a suit and take romantic and passionate and black and white photos together and later, still in the suit, orgasms for me. I would find the entire thing so riveting, I wrote my first piece of erotica called 'Fantasy/Now' in which my fantasy became reality and then turned back into fantasy. Then I would publish Love All the Way, and from there I would publish my memoir, If You Really Love Me, Throw Me Off the Mountain.
Considering all this desire and unlovability and imagination and impulse to sublimate, it is not at all strange to me that that one sexual experience could fuel so much expression. This is why I could relate to so much of how Abramovic's work was fuelled by her experience of love —and it's absence.
I told the philosopher how accepting unlovability in a sense feels different than feeling insecure. An insecurity is a judgement you've internalized, one that is specific and often completely unlinked to reality. but, If the world does not love you in truth, and you know this because it tells you, acknowledging that doesn't mean you don't love yourself. It's tricky, of course. Borders are arbitrary, even the ones you draw in your mind.
Because you will, despite your best defences, yearn. Like the human you are. Full of desire. The non disabled world will teach you how to fear your desire and repress it. If you seek to be like them, to fit in, they will teach you the worst of their wisdom. But my imagination wasn't afraid of desire, it taught me to be romantic, to merge my art with my life, to blur the lines, to learn my fate —"in the end you are really alone, no matter what you do"— In which case, you might as well want.
Lisa told me after a falling out with Mau, "Man... I can’t help but love the art Mau has inspired in you, but... I also hate how he seems to still have the capacity to hurt you in intimate and insidious ways." I loved her for acknowledging both. This was also how I felt. I loved the art. I hated the hurt. But I also couldn't deny that the art was the hurt. And what made the hurt insidious was that it came from within, that unlovable place. Did love draw pain to the surface so art could use it? Or did art draw me to the love? Did I love the art or the man? Did he love me or who I made him in my mind? I didn't want it to be real, I wanted it to be a photo of a man in a suit in some form of worship of my body.
And it was.
Abramovic's memoir contains a lot of photos of the events she describes and, toward the end, there was an image that I recognized. In this one, you can see her face, her chest, the one exposed breast, and the man in a suit —not on his knees at all, but in her arms like the Pieta, lips to her nipple. It was called 'The Contract' and referred to him asking her to art direct a Givenchy show. Now that I knew his name, Ricardo Tisci, and that it was her breast, I could google it. And yes, it was from the same shoot that produced the image I had printed out and framed and still had nearly a decade later.
An image I had experienced as real and then turned back into an image of my own.
I write in my memoir about the erotic photos Mau and I had taken, how there is one that reminds me of the Pieta, his lips are against my knee, not around my nipple, but the ache of devotion is there. I wrote about how the way they were presented briefly felt fetishizing, but not at all what I had imagined when I wanted to gild them in gold and display them as massive iconography. I wrote about how the breakdown of the fantasy of our relationship changed the way I felt about the photos being shown at all —ever. I experienced this rearranging of motivation Marina wrote about over and over again. But unlike her, I canceled all my thoughts of using the photos. I could write about the images, but I could no longer look at them. I relegated the files to a disc drive that doesn't connect to the computer I currently use.
Reading Marina’s experience of creating with lovers who become ex lovers, and carrying on with her work, seeing the images of her naked body on stage with her then-husband, the context of the art shifting as the relationship did and as she reflected on it, reminded me of when I had the desire to share my own erotic images, when I was full of a sense of their possibility. It reminded me of how my understanding of the perception of my body vs my experience of my body has also rearranged over time. Discovering The Contract, and how Marina had influenced me for so long without me even knowing it, made me briefly wish that I had released my own images so that I would have to live with them now —but exposed— instead of under my bed, along with my printout of The Contract. I held back out of a sense of reality, self-preservation, knowing I would heal more raggedly if I followed the art’s impulse and not my human one.
Marina ends her memoir similarly to mine. Instead of a happy romantic ending as people often expect after reading about so much love. She is alone, revelling in solitude, having healed her body and heartbreak but not ending either. The sensation of life-by-way-of-nature pulsing through her. I was in a desert, she in an ocean. The sense of open-ended release in our stories is intentional.